Yesterday's Island Today's Nantucket
Volume 40 Issue 22 • Nov 22 - Jan 2011
now in our 40th season

Island Christmases Past and Present

by William Ferrall

Among the many relics, artifacts and colorful customs that distinguish Nantucket’s 350-year incorporated history, Christmas is a relative newcomer. That said, since the middle of the last century, the end-of-year holidays have grown to be among the most looked forward to and memorable days on the Island, especially for longtime year-round residents and seasonal homeowners.

As in much of the United States, observances of the Christmas holiday began in earnest here after it was declared a Federal holiday in 1870. Nantucket-based whaling ship logs from the 1830s-1860s had mentioned both Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations far from the island, but perhaps because of the great influence of serious-toned Quakers on the island, Christmas happenings including the decorating of homes and the sending of cards really took off on Nantucket only after the Civil War.
Today, decades-old traditions on the island have created many vivid memories for residents, homeowners and visitors alike. Many Nantucket community leaders who long ago helped create and spur on these recent traditions continue living locally in their homes or in one of the island’s several elder care living facilities. For many of us, the end-of-year holidays offer numerous events and volunteer opportunities to hear their memories first-hand.

My most treasured memory of a Nantucket Christmas came not long after I moved here 20 years ago, when we invited a dozen or more friends to our South Wharf apartment for a festive Christmas Eve dinner party. The weather outside soon turned stormy with rain and sleet, and with wind buffeting and humming through the wharf’s buildings and the masts of boats docked there for winter.
What might have been a lively Nantucket Christmas celebration soon turned problematic, when power went out across the Island, a common occurrence in those days before the undersea cable that now brings us more reliable service.

With chilled wine and fresh seafood awaiting preparation for dinner, one member of our party suggested a solution. Soon, we were a moveable feast, with our group traveling to his country home, where a large kettle of water on his open-hearth furnace helped us to prepare the shrimp and angel hair pasta. A few glasses of wine later, we were dining by candlelight in a rustic colonial-era farmhouse, enjoying a Christmas Eve that none of has forgotten.

Of course, today you could recreate that romantic setting by simply turning out the lights. But being limited by our location 30 miles at sea and our happenstance that night made the event more vivid in our collective memories. And so it goes in recent decades with many other holiday happenings on Nantucket.

Flying Santas, Festive Trees

From1926 through the 1982, New England Flying Santas traveled via air planes and helicopters to deliver Yuletide cheer to the region’s lighthouses and U.S. Coast Guard stations, in a modern version of the traditional reindeer-drawn sleigh and that was appropriate to our remote location.

Nantucket’s Sankaty Light and our Brant Point Light and Coast Guard installation became drop sites for the Flying Santa under Edgar Rowe Snow, an historian and Winthrop, Massachusetts, native who suited up as the Flying Santa from 1936 on, using hired pilots since he was not one himself.

Longtime photojournalist and former Nantucket Inquirer & Mirror photographer Frederick G.S. Clow flew with Snow in 1972. Now officially retired but still active as a photographer here and in Boston, Clow relived the episode in late 2007 by flying around and capturing images of Sankaty Light as it was moved to a safer location.

Here on terra firma, Nantucket’s two longest running traditions during the Christmas season are Nantucket Stroll, sponsored now by the Nantucket Island Chamber of Commerce, and the annual Christmas Tree Festival put on by the Nantucket Historical Association.

Attracting visitors from around the world, Nantucket Christmas Stroll began informally in the early 1970s with downtown merchants creating promotions for the holidays, initially over Thanksgiving Weekend. Shopkeepers advertised special pricing, put on bright displays and welcomed “strollers,” mostly from among the year-round population since “off-season” tourism on Nantucket was meager.
From early on, merchants lined downtown streets with lighted Christmas trees, creating a colorful display that many today consider to be among the most picturesque holiday scenes in America. By word of mouth, Stroll grew over the years in popularity and began attracting seasonal homeowners and visitors to Nantucket. The Chamber of Commerce later assumed responsibility for Stroll events and made the centerpiece first full weekend in December the official Christmas Stroll Weekend.

Today, Stroll Saturday begins at noon with a visit from Santa via Coast Guard cutter and then a ride up Main Street by carriage to Pacific Bank and the Magical Talking Tree. Victorian carolers, bell ringers, and other musicians stroll up and down the closed-off Main Street and around the downtown. Many island theater, musical and arts groups stage special events throughout Nantucket Noel, now a weeks-long celebration of the season stretching from Thanksgiving through New Years Eve, during which many island businesses earn their largest chunk of income for the year.

At Nantucket Bake Shop out on Orange Street, the weeks leading up to Christmas bring their biggest workloads of the year. “It all started 30 years ago when a customer asked us to ship baked goods to him and his family in Michigan for the holidays,” recalled Anne Bradt, co-owner of the bakeshop with her late husband David. Today, Nantucket Bake Shop is owned and run by Bradt’s daughter and her husband Jay Detmer, with Bradt still chipping in during Yuletide. Hundreds of the Bake Shop’s famous loaves of Portuguese bread and boxes of its sweet macaroons are shipped around the world on a daily basis, making them the Island’s busiest holiday shipper, according to Bradt. The local post office regularly parks its trucks just outside the bakery to whisk off shipments within hours after they’re baked.

Open for Yuletide Cheer

Most shopkeepers in town once welcomed visitors with festive food and drink during the holidays, a practice continued today on a limited basis. Out in Nantucket’s small village of ‘Sconset, historically only a handful of businesses have remained open during the Yule Season. According to Jean Egan, who moved to ‘Sconset in 1948 with her new husband Arthur (TK) Egan, village residents once created their own small town memories for the holidays by opening their doors on both Thanksgiving and Christmas Day to neighbors. “Sometimes we gathered at the one-room schoolhouse,” today’s ‘Sconset firehouse, recalled Egan, who like Bradt, is now a resident of Sherburne Commons, one of the senior living communities on Nantucket.

Sherburne Commons will be one of many island organizations this year to decorate and put their placard on one of the sparkling trees that adorn the halls of Nantucket Whaling Museum, where the Nantucket Historical Association’s 17th annual Festival of Trees lights up the weekend after Thanksgiving. (Trees outside on the streets of Nantucket are decorated by mostly local non-profits and children’s school groups, under sponsorship of the Chamber of Commerce.)

Launched in 1994 by NHA’s then board president Kim Corkran and her mother Lucile Pierce Corkran, the “Tree Fest” ranks among the most sought-after tickets of the year, especially for its opening night gala on Thursday before Stroll Weekend. More than 80 lighted trees deck the halls of the Whaling Museum with decorations ranging from traditional décor to historical artifacts like Nantucket lightship baskets or offbeat items like gardening tools, cowboy boots and one-of-a-kind works of art. The display remains open to visitors through New Year’s weekend. As a prelude to the Tree Fest, the NHA fills its halls over the Thanksgiving Weekend only with decorative wreaths crafted by local artisans.

Eyewitness accounts and colorful memories of past Christmases on Nantucket remain vivid for Clow, Bradt, Egan and many others who’ll be here for the holidays. Besides enjoying these ongoing holiday festivals, each recalls special days when ponds froze over for skating, or when snow fell so deep on Main or Orange streets that town officials closed them down to let Island families use them as sledding hills.

“It’s a great season of giving,” noted Bradt. For many of us, it’s a chance to learn more about Nantucket’s Christmas holiday traditions from the people who helped launch them, while helping their holidays continue to be memorable ones.

Ruth Grieder called Yesterday’s Island on December 21 to share with us and our readers a memory of Flying Santa (Edward Rowe Snow) that her late husband often recalled.  

Ruth’s husband, Bill Grieder, Sr, lived out at Great Point Lighthouse with his parents and brother for four years.  His father, Frank Grieder, was the lighthouse keeper at Great Point. Bill used to recall the very first time that Edward Rowe Snow, the “Flying Santa” visited his family at Great Point Lighthouse.

“He circled the tower and dropped a package.  This was way back, and they had never heard of Flying Santa, so when the package was dropped they thought it was a bomb!  When nothing exploded, they went out to investigate.  They found a big package of books for Christmas.  They welcomed him every Christmas after that.”

Thank you Ruth for sharing this memory!


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